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Community Written Story - The Zetatech Job

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"Ms. Valkyrie, Mr. Dowe is here to see you."

Miranda had been expecting Jonathan to appear. She was faintly surprised that he'd shown up so early. Usually he made a point of waiting until she was forced to ask him to come. "Wait five minutes Kira, then send him in."

"Yes, Ms. Valkyrie."

Miranda looked out on the harbour. The dying light played fitfully on the slow ripples of the water contained in the bay. The ripples in water mirrored Miranda's state of mind. The thin visible layer hiding much deeper and stronger currents underneath. Miranda has worked very hard to reach her position. She would do anything to keep it and she made sure everyone understood that.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sudden pounding on her door. Miranda sighed inwardly. "Let him in Kira."

The door swung in silently and Jonathan Dowe burst through it. "What in the hell are you playing at Miranda? What do you mean by keeping me waiting? We're married, or have you forgotten that?"

"No. I've not forgotten. But your memory seems to have convenient lapses."

Jonathan reddened involuntarily at her words, but he was past trying to maintain
any sense of propriety in his personal life. Their marriage had run it's course years ago, but the cost of extricating himself from the arrangement was far too high. Too high personally, and far too high financially. His mother had warned him about Miranda, but he'd been too headstrong and rebellious to listen to her. Now he was paying for that rebellion. Daily.

Swallowing his bile Jonathan said, "I didn't come here to fight Miranda."

"You didn't? Then why, exactly, did you barge into my office?" Miranda turned to face her supposed husband. Jonathan was one of those men whose good looks were so natural, that any attempt to enhance them surgically would have ruined them. Jonathan had also waited longer than normal to start the prolong treatments. His raven hair was streaked ever so slightly with grey at his temples, giving him an air of natural authority that had made him an ideal leader for every polictical party in the last four elections. That is if he had any interest watery political power. His physique had always made Olympians envious, but it was the ever so subtle crinkles in the corners of his piercing grey eyes that made women of any age clay in his hands.

Jonathan regarded Miranda's beauty. Her's was a face that could launch ten thousand ships. Her slim, yet sultry figure was one of her tools. She used her form hugging dresses the way a surgeon uses a scalpal, cutting straight to the weakness in the men she exploited, leaving them hollow and bewildered. As devastating as her beauty was, it was her piecing intellect that made her truly dangerous. That and her unrelenting drive to succeed regardless of the cost to either herself or others. An intoxicating trait when you're climbing the corporate ladder, but terrifying when you've reached the top and are determined to stay there.

Jonathan was determined to make Miranda listen. "Look, Miranda..."

"What did you call me?" Miranda cut him off with an icy snap. "You're addressing an officer the company. In her office."

Jonathan sputtered and began again. "Ms. Valkyrie," Jonathan bit the words off, "I've been doing some research into these rumours..."

"The rumours surrounding new technology being developed at Zetatech. Technology that will put a serious dent in our market share if we allow Zetatech to compete their work." Miranda fixed Jonathan with a withering look. As if anything he knew about, she hadn't already spent millions to know. Sighing at Jonathan's naivety, she continued, "Jonathan, Zetatech has been on the company's radar for a long time. They've been on mine even longer. Jorge Gundensen built Zetatech from nothing. From less than nothing, and now they're poised to become a major pain in our collective backsides. Did you truly think I wouldn't know everything that was going on in Zetatech?"

Jonathan fumed silently at Miranda's words and tone. She moved to her desk and sat, motioning Jonathan to do likewise. As much as it galled him to submit to any of her commands, Miranda was clearly ahead of him. Again.


Miranda and Jonathan regarded each other in silence for a moment. Leaning back into her chair Miranda asked, "So, Jonathan, what do you think you know?
 
Miranda stared at her husband as silence engulfed the room. She could see in Jonathan's eyes that he so badly wanted to tell Miranda exactly what he thought of her. Jonathan was easy to read and easier to manipulate. She knew he wouldn't speak out of turn here. Jonathan may have been the oldest son of Camila Dowe, but Miranda had proven herself a valuable asset even before she married into the Dowe family, and was practically indispensable to the company now. Several members of the board were already quietly discussing her as a successor when the old witch retired, though they would never to say that in front of Camila. Camila was the aging CEO of IEC now, since her two original partners were no longer with the company, and earning her ire was a straight shot to unemployment, or worse.

Jonathan's voice cut through her thoughts. "I think we have to make a play to acquire Zetatech. It's the smart move. Their wetware has become renowned over the past decade. They've gone from a small start up to a real player. We would be wise to acquire them now, before the costs becomes prohibitive."

Miranda's wasn't sure if she was more annoyed that her thoughts were interrupted, or that she let herself get distracted. "Mr. Dowe, IEC didn't become the world’s largest cybernetics company by paying premium price for new assets." She paused to let the condescending tone settle in. "But, you're right. We need to make sure those Silicon Valley brats don't become more of a market share issue. Arrangements have been made with several of our mutual friends to assemble the financing for a takeover. We have substantial ties with several of Zetatech's institutional investors. However, there is a problem. You've heard of their 'genius' inventor, Karon Davis, yes?"

"Heard of him? He's a fanatic. He hates everything about us and we both know he'll never agree to cooperate," mused Jonathan.

Miranda continued without looking at her husband. "Our investors agree. What we need is leverage so that the Zetatech board has cause to boot Davis out of management. A scandal with him gone, and not only will our path to merger become much easier, but the stock prices will fall short term. Once we come in and save the day, things will shore back up. Not least of all, our market share."

"So where do I fit in?" asked Jonathan.

Miranda walked up to her husband and touched his arm. She looked at her assistant, who immediately got up to leave. Miranda rested her head on Jonathan's shoulder. "My dear, you go get us some independent contractors. No one with connections to us of course." She kissed his neck and ran her fingers down his side to his hips. She whispered, "They'll do what they do regarding Mr. Davis, and we'll have our leverage. Build the team and make sure it's done right. I'll be very pleased." She infused her hushed voice with innuendo as the final words slipped from her lips.

Miranda slid a shard with the mission specs into Jonathan's hand, and in an instant snapped back to cold business. "All the details are on this, you'll need someone good for netrunning ... and probably some muscle just in case. I've left a half dozen potential candidates for you. Get it done.”

"My pleasure, Ms. Valkyrie," said Jonathan. Her husband smirked, and without another word he left the room. As he turned, Miranda saw a small flash in his eye that she hadn't expected.

Miranda lit a cigarette and took in a long deep breath as she watched the door close. That son of a bitch is up to something. "Julia?" Her assistant reappeared immediately. "Keep an eye on Mr. Dowe, I want to know who he gets."

"Yes ma'am."




***




The coms rang. Sard didn't recognize the number and ignored it. Whoever they were, they left no message.

Sard was cleaning his Colt AMT Model 2000 and hated being interrupted. The heavy, semiautomatic pistol was a gift he got for himself. Cleaning it brought him a sense of peace, which was now for the second time being disturbed by the damned coms. Same number. Sard didn't know this person and he already hated them. He got up, but rather than answer, the six foot two soldier of fortune walked over to the kitchen, still ignoring the call. The ringing stopped. Again no message.

Sard heated some noodles, and sat down at the counter to start eating. The 360 square foot apartment, was essentially a kitchen, living room and bedroom all in one space with a small bathroom next to the kitchen. It wasn't much, but it was good enough to sleep in and better than the street. The coms rang again. He looked out of his small window with disdain but concluded answering the call might be the only way to make it shut up. He accessed his optical viewer and took the call ... but no face met him.

Just static and a voice.

"Mr. Eckhart, you're a hard man to get a hold of, I like that," said the static.

Flattery. Sard could tell he was definitely going to hate whoever owned that voice. "And you're interrupting my dinner. What do you want?" he said flatly.

"I want to meet and talk about some work. Lucrative work," answered the voice.

"Lucrative work, huh? Well, that's awfully specific of you, Mr. Static man. How about this? Leave me alone." He ended the call.

The coms rang again. Same number. Who does this guy think he is? Sard picked up again and didn't wait for Mr. Static to speak: "Listen pal, I don't know you, and I don't go meet random strangers with vague promises. Good way to get yourself killed or ripped off in my experience."

"And you are a man of experience Mr. Eckhart, that much is clear," the voice said. "I understand the concern, I truly do, which is why I'm offering to pay $10,000 Euro Dollars up front. More to follow if the job is done well. I can assure you I am no two-eddie hustler. You came highly recommended from All Foods, Inc., after your job for them. Impressive work. We'll start with a meeting in public, of course. I get it. Trust is an issue. If you accept the job, you'll walk away from the meeting, cred chip in hand ... but with the understanding that you are expected to follow through. If you don't want the job, the coffee is on me."

How does he know about All Foods? Someone had clearly done their homework. Sard glanced at his Colt. "In public, eh? Where?"

"Tom's Diner in Little China. Thursday at 15:00."

"Fine." Sard ended the call. He looked again at the Colt. And, if he's lying ... well … there are ways to deal with that too.
 
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“In one hour, Night City will be covered in toxic rain. Meteorologists recommend wearing heavy clothing..." said the old man on the vids. It was only the second week for Serg in Night City, and he already despised it. Another dirty city. Just like a Norylsk, thought Serg. The roast beef was way worse than in Russia. "No money. No good food. Everything is right," he thought again. A man he didn’t know sat down with him.

"May I?" asked the stranger. He was wearing a long black trench coat with a hood, so Serg couldn't even see his face clearly.

"You already did," observed Serg.

The Stranger laughed “Yeah I did," he said. "For a Russian guy, you don't have much of an accent." The stranger smiled.Serg stayed silent. "Yeah, I know that you’re from Russia. Furthermore, I know you’re a man of particular skills. I need someone who knows there way around tech and isn’t afraid of a little action. You’re just the type of guy I’m looking for." Serg didn't want to know how this stranger found out everything about him. Serg's wallet was almost empty. He needed eddies fast, or he would die in this city of sin.

"I know that look," said the stranger with a smile, staring deeply into Serg's eyes, searchingly. "That look means interest and an empty wallet."

"Ok. You got me. What do you have and why did you choose me?" said Serg, finally. The stranger's smile grew to reveal his teeth. A smile devoid of any warmth.

"You see, Mr. Kluchov," the smile faded, "we need people like you: strong, good with tech and with some serious implants." He glanced at Serg's arm with its special cyberskin, enhanced musculature and the SovOil symbol. "You know, Mr. Kluchov," the stranger continued, "Night City is big. It has many corporations. And they are all competing with each other." His voice dropping to a whisper, added, "And My clients are one of them."

"Excuse me, whatever-your-name," said Serg. "But can we speak about the work? I don't need this garbage. I need to eat my food and go home. Just say it." The stranger's icy smile returned.

"As you say, Mr. Kluchov. I need you for a big job. Our ..." the stranger fell silent for a moment, "... competition. Yes. Word has it our competition is hiring to try and undermine our interests. They're trying to ... acquire something. Awful people you must understand. Your job is simple – deal with these people and bring me whatever they acquire." The stranger sat there without another word and looked at Serg.

Serg was tapping his middle finger on the table. "I need to think..." said Serg with doubt.

"I don't have much time for thinking," said the stranger, irritation flashing briefly before his eyes started to shine. "All right. Here's my number." A card appeared and was placed in front of Serg. "I'm giving you 24 hours to think," he whispered. "If you agree - call me and we will discuss the payment and everything you need to work." He got up and quickly walked out of the café.

Serg stared at the card briefly. Sighing inwardly he picked it up.

"Shit... I'm in deep shit," said Serg looking at the number. His roast beef was already cold, and Serg left it half-eaten. Leaving eddies on the table, he followed the stranger out of the café.
 
The sun was slowly setting, its light fading by the minute. Dark, hostile-looking clouds were gathering in the sky; looked like the toxic rain that had been forecast for the night was indeed coming. The few people who were walking along the streets cast occasional, worried glances at the sky as they hurried towards their destinations.

In stark contrast to Night City’s gloom, a bright, yellow light shone in one of the many windows of a medium-sized, monotonously grey, but seemingly new apartment block.

The light was perhaps a bit brighter than one might expect from a meager apartment, but there was a good reason for it. The apartment’s occupant, a skilled Netrunner who went by the name of Lil was in the middle of a task that required care.

I really did a number on him…but no random thug is going to mug me for my eddies, thought Lil as she cleaned her claws of the last traces of the scuffle she had gotten into a couple hours earlier on the street. She took care not to accidentally cut herself on the sharp edges. Lil had never liked the term ‘rippers’, so she had taken to calling hers ‘cyberclaws’ instead. Much less brutal-sounding that way. While she was in her element in the Net, on the streets of the real Night City she had sometimes felt defenseless. Her various defensive programs were of no use there, so she had opted to have the claws installed. They were black market tech, but it was a risk Lil had been willing to take. She had temporarily pulled her long, pink hair in a ponytail to keep it out of the way. After she finished cleaning them, the claws shone as if brand new again. She drew them back in and re-attached her fake fingernails to cover the hidden weapons. The nails were the exact same shade of pink as Lil’s hair; matching colors were an important detail.

Lil stood up from her chair, stretching her muscles after being hunched over for so long, and let her hair loose again.

She crossed the room to take look outside through her window. Behind the gathering clouds, the partially visible horizon was already going through shades of pink; the sun would soon have set completely. A light drizzle was beginning to fall from the menacing-looking mass of clouds far above; going outside tonight was not an option. Lil could tell the rain was toxic – it had been the only kind of rain the city had gotten recently, and she recognized the characteristic lack of reflection on the droplets that were already dotting the window.

Well, good thing I wasn’t going to head out again anyway, she thought as she turned and made her way back to the table she had been sitting at. I really need to figure out what my next target is going to be, and how to approach it. She was planning to scout out a few buildings in the Net, to find out what kind of defenses they had against unfriendly Netrunners like herself.

She hadn’t had any major jobs lately – or rather she hadn’t accepted any of the jobs offered to her. She had been working hard for the past two years and wanted to plan a heist of her own for a change. She had a list of potential targets ready; all she had to do was decide which one of them was the most likely to not be too much of a challenge. While she liked challenges, she was not stupid enough to attempt something clearly beyond her skills and abilities. Stupidity only ever got people killed.

Just then she heard the familiar sound of an incoming call.

No caller info was available, which immediately made Lil suspicious; such calls usually meant one of two things: serious trouble, or a chance to make serious money. Sometimes she even got anonymous calls offering jobs where success led to serious money and failure to serious trouble. It had long been a habit of Lil’s to attempt to track all such calls to their origin, to find out who was calling. This time was no exception; before answering the call she started up her tracing program on her deck.

“Good evening, Ms. Triton,” said a smooth male voice when she finally answered the call. “I hear you have not had any real work recently. Is that true?”

“It is,” replied Lil calmly, keeping an eye on the progress of the tracing. “Am I to assume you’ve got work to offer me?”

“Indeed,” came the voice, and Lil could hear the man was pleased by her reply. “I am indeed calling you on business – I wish to meet and offer you work. Very lucrative work. You stand to gain a great deal.”

Sounds like one of those "serious money or serious trouble" jobsI suppose there’s no harm in hearing him out, especially since the tracing is still in process, mused Lil. Judging by how long the tracing was taking, the man must have been calling from a well-secured place. Which might mean he was calling on behalf of one of the corps…their buildings were notoriously difficult to breach with programs like the tracer. Hers was a fairly advanced version, but it might not be good enough.

“I’m listening,” she said, making sure to sound both curious and cautious.

“Excellent.” The man paused for a moment, then continued, “You have quite the reputation in Netrunner circles, Ms. Triton. You have also completed various contracts for some of the bigger players in Night City, which makes you a good candidate for the job I wish to offer.” He paused again, and Lil could hear the faint sound of papers being shuffled. “Should you accept the offer, you will be paid ten thousand eurodollars up front, and more if you successfully complete the job according to the instructions you will receive.” The man subtly emphasized the words ‘ten thousand’, but his voice gave no hint about the potential nature of the job being offered.

Just then, Lil’s tracer finally accomplished its task, pinpointing the exact origin of the call.

IEC? Woah, he really must be a big player then, thought Lil as she gazed at the information on the screen. She had never worked for IEC, but she knew quite a bit about the type of business they did. And it seemed like something she might be willing to discuss.

“Ah, I see you are just as good as you are said to be,” came the man’s voice, now sounding amused. “Breaching our security to trace the call…yes, you definitely seem like the right person for the job we have to offer.” He had switched from singular to plural, no longer saying he was offering the job.

“Let’s say I’m interested,” said Lil, not revealing her reaction to having been caught since the man seemed to have taken it well. “Where would you like to meet?”

“Tom’s Diner, located in Little China. As for the time…Thursday at 15:00. Should you choose to decline the job, there will be no consequences. Should you choose to accept it, you will do so with full understanding that you are expected to follow through until the end. The ten thousand will be yours if you accept; no strings attached.”

“All right then. I’ll be there.”

“Splendid. I shall meet you then,” said the man and ended the call.

Lil noted that he sounded pleased with how the conversation had gone, and she couldn’t help but be pleased as well. It was not every day that a corp offered a job with such a significant payment up front – much less with no consequences for declining the job. Either of those promises could be false, though. Lil knew she would need to be on her guard throughout the meeting…especially as she knew what kind of people inhabited Little China. She didn’t often go there, because a couple of particularly nasty boostergangs prowled the area. While she wasn’t too afraid of them, she saw no reason to unnecessarily put herself at risk by wandering through notoriously dangerous areas.

I guess my personal project is on hold for now. I should probably start planning how to equip myself on Thursday afternoon…
 
Case Alder rushed without drawing attention. For once, it wasn't bothering him to be just another rockerboy wannabe, as common as the reeking puddles leftover from last night's storm. A lack of fame was comforting at the moment. The few people who might recognize him would call him "Tugger", a nickname earned after an unfortunate incident on stage a few year ago. Too many huffs before he went out. What could he say? His music moved him. It was about the passion. The boosters made it better.

It had definitely caught the attention of that media slut. She had to be the reason this was happening now. Had to be. Little, fucking trick. Sweet face. Sweeter bod. All hot-and-heavy until a story caught her attention. Then, it was all unexpected calls and sexy promises for "later on". His hand was snap-tapping a rhythm as he walked. A clear sign he was getting revved...

He took a few deep breaths. Tried to let it go. Needed to stay focused. He had to clear his head, man. He reached inside his faux-denim vest and pulled out a sizable inhaler. He took a good hit and hopped about, waiting for it to kick in. He could feel the surge coursing through his chest, down his limbs, the floodgate of euphoria breaking open in his mind. Really good shit. He took another hit and moved on, starting to count the streets. He had this.

He came to the corner outside a commercial building. The alleyway behind it served as a loading depot for the various shops and cafes inside. A few utility vehicles parked about. All the roller doors were down. No activity. His vision was a little blurry. He grinned through it -- always hit that shit too hard. There. Dark grey sedan. Clean. Nice looking. Just like they said. He let off a little headbanging, firing himself up, making sure his shock of blonde hair was properly wild, and sauntered into the alley.

The car's driver door opened. A sizeable, security type got out, straightened his overcoat, and opened the rear passenger door. A young man smoothly exited the vehicle. Clean cut hair so black it reflected blue. Sharp suit. No sign of any major chrome. Low-level grasper written all over him. The guard indicated Case with a sidelong nod, saying, "Tugger."

Case walked straight up to the young corp rep with a fan-hungry smile plastered on his face. "Nice to know the ones that know me, brothers!" He raised his hand for a clap and a bump.

No response. The guard took half a step forward, angling his stance.

Case held his hand up for a bit, then doubled over in a dramatic bow and hung there for a second. "Man, come on, now! If we gonna build something here, I gotta feel at least a little love being -- "

His feet left the ground for an instant, floating. His back slammed into solid concrete. The hand at his throat was ice, pinning him half slouched against the alley wall. He could still breathe, but he had to struggle. He frantically worked at the guard's arm. Like pulling at a support beam. Borged fucker. The guard studied his face for a second. The grip eased by a tiny fraction. Breathing became a bit easier. Not much.

"I hope you find love, Mr. Tugger. Someday." The young rep moved fully into view. "I'm not in a hurry, exactly, but I would like to be other places. You are acquainted with a reporter named Melena Rosetta. Correct?"

"Slippery bitch...!" Case choked out. "I knew she...was...fucking...behin..." His wheezing words were cut off as the guard's grip slowly tightened again. He couldn't help his eyes from bulging a little.

"I asked a question." The rep exaggerated a few nods: "This is 'Yes,' Mr. Tugger." He shook his head slowly from side to side: "This is 'No.' Let's keep your responses clear. Melena Rosetta?"

Case nodded brusquely -- as much as the grip would allow. He put all of his effort into taking a full breath.

"Splendid. Our conversation is already more productive." The rep held up a data shard. "You will have no trouble remembering to give this to Ms. Rosetta?"

Case shook his head.

"I appreciate clients that understand the simplicity of such business." The man pulled out a second shard and reached over to slip both into a pocket on Case's vest. "The second one is for your payment. The amount will suffice for such straightforward work. In the future, we will have more information for you to forward to Ms. Rosetta. Each time you make the delivery, you will receive another payment. If you fail to make the delivery or otherwise interfere with this very simple process, I will have a much, much shorter chat with you, Mr. Tugger. Is there anything you wished to ask or add?"

The guard's grip tightened to the point that he could feel muscles beginning to rip. Tears streamed out of the corner of his eyes. He barely maintained enough focus to remember to shake his head.

"Thank you, Mr. Tugger."

He tumbled to the ground. The air rushing into his lungs felt better than the drugs. He could do little but gag for a while. The whine of an engine drew further away. Getting back to his feet, he fumbled in his pocket for the shards. The blue one was the payment. He popped it in, and his eyes bulged again.

He wasn't even angry with Melena anymore.

***

Lilayah sat on the edge of a greenery installment, the shade of the plants doing little to soothe the heat of the glaring sun. Not even three days ago, she had been shivering under the covers while the storm came down. She put the nic-stick between her teeth and gave it a pull. Whatever. She didn't feel like being comfortable now, anyway.

The waitress walked by, eyeing her again. Damn it, she hated this. The cafe murmured and clattered, elegantly styled tables and chinaware offset by the energetic music being pumped over the speakers. Loud enough to make eavesdropping hard, but not loud enough to force people to shout. The food smelled expensive. Wrong side of town, she thought. Lil could feel it when she wasn't blending. There was a nice latitude she occupied: right between the booster gangs rolling about in the gutters and the "well enough" society that play-acted luxury. She preferred the middle, where no one ever knew enough to care or cared enough to notice. At the moment, however, she was exactly where everyone knew she didn't belong. Granted, there were a few frayed edges here and there around the cafe: the occasional scrub with a few eddies to spare on a treat. There were also a handful of actual corporates at the tables, sipping their drinks and hiding things behind smiles. Trouble was, they were all there with people, for reasons, while she had been waiting alone for -- she glanced at the display on the wall -- nearly 40 minutes.

That waitress, now talking with the hostess, threw another look her way. Lil decided she was done ignoring it. She smiled directly at the two of them and let her eyes flash their brilliant, lavender glow. The two turned away and began tittering. Oh. Lil glanced down.It was that... She didn't like being this on-edge. She needed to get done and get the hell out of there.

A younger-looking man with deep, raven hair and a smoking hot suit sat down at the empty table she had been watching all this time. He didn't look around or try to signal for service. He just turned his chair a bit, staring off the balcony at the cityscape baking in the afternoon light.

On the damned second, thought Lilayah. She discreetly activated the datapad in her pocket, running a quick, neural check: virtual net overlay, trace scrambler, packet sniffer. I'll watch you from the bushes, Mr. Business Man, even if you don't see me. She tossed the nic-stick and made her way toward the table. The waitress grinned as she passed.

The man didn't turn or show any sign that he recognized her approach. She decided to dish it right back, took a seat, and waited silently. He never looked at her, but it wasn't long before he said:

"He's more patient than you. Interesting."

Lil balked. She couldn't quite figure out what he meant. As subtly as she could, she glanced about. No one of note. What she did notice was the waitress and hostess were now pointedly not looking at her. Their interest and smiles had apparently vanished as soon she sat down with this guy. Shit, Lil thought. Shit. She did another neural check of her software. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.Shit. SHIT. She never broke composure. "Who could possibly be more patient than we are?"

"It won't be but another moment," he responded. His gaze continued to lazily scan the city.

Lilayah locked her eyes on him, gauging the angle of their chairs, the table's width...if this was a setup, she'd get at least a piece.

It was, in truth, less than a full minute.

She felt someone approach from behind. A faint smell like gunpowder, old booze, and musky soap. The man that sat down was wrapped in a long coat that was clearly kitted with armor. She could see the traces of the chrome in his head and neck. A thick black beard fell below his collar. He moved lightly, though. Without effort. Obviously a solo, and one that knew what he was doing.

"Who is she?" asked the newcomer. His voice had that growl. Not the try-hard kind that toughs on the street worked at...the world-tired kind that wasn't intentional.

"Wherever are my manners in such awkward circumstances? Meet Lilayah, Sard. She's the netrunner that will be working with you. I trust you can get on from there." The corp rep still hadn't looked at either of them.

"I prefer to work alone if I can't pick my own team," said Sard.

"So do I," said the young rep, "and yet, here we all are."

"You're not the same person I spoke to before."

"What makes you think that?"

"Because you're not."

"You're right, of course."

"Then why the hell are you here?" asked Lil.

"I'll tell you when it's my turn."

Lil leaned forward, decreasing the distance to the young man just a little more. "Where's the rep we're supposed to meet?"

"He'll be calling now."

On cue, both Sard and Lil's ComLinks lit up.
 
Koffi looked at the readouts on the monitor one more time. "That can't be right." After five years at Zetatech, and three on THE PROJECT, she pretty much knew what to expect, and this wasn't it. "Sami! Are you sure you have the leads properly connected?" She thunked the monitor with the palm of her hand just in case that was the problem.

"Yeah, I'm sure. Why? Not getting any data?" All she could see of Sami was an indistinct shadow at the far end of the lab.

"Oh, I've got data alright, it just doesn't make any sense. According to this, the nanites are working at half-speed, but cellular reconstruction is taking place at nearly double."

"Oh, that," Sami replied. "The Doc did some sorta tweak to the reconstruction protocol. Didn't you get the memo?"

"I get a couple dozen memos every day and really don't care if the fruit drink machine on the 4th-floor, break room is down. So, I don't bother to read most of them, unless the sender is someone that matters," Koffi muttered to herself, just loudly enough for Sami to hear.

"Yeah, well, Jenny was out sick today, so someone was filling in for her as the Doc's secretary. You really need to pay more attention to things that don't have microchips for brains," Sami laughed.

Koffi just rolled her eyes and started making entries in the database. Good thing THE PROJECT was in its final development stages. Soon, she'd be a rich woman living the life of luxury on some tropical island that didn't have acid rain, smog, or crime rates that made the news with new record highs every other month. All she had to do was be a model employee and meet a contact once a month. Oh, and be ready, soon, for a team to arrive to collect the data and samples.



***



"I don't do business by Comm," Sard grumbled, ignoring the call.

Lilayah glanced at hers. "What's the point of this? Calls can be traced and monitored, face to face meets are much more secure."

"Answer, or feel free to leave," said the young rep. "Unlike some, my boss has a busy schedule and can't afford the time to meet you in person."

Lil looked at Sard for a second, shrugged, then answered. “I’m listening,” she said, making sure to sound both curious and cautious.

"I take it Mr. Eckhart is present but reluctant to answer?" said the same voice she'd spoken to before. She was sure it was the same voice, or a comp sim, because her readouts all matched the ones she made during the previous call. But, some background noise was classified as 'aircraft' by the program.

"You take it correctly, and I'm none too thrilled either."

"Be that as it may, please inform him that while he's my first choice for this task he's not the only option."

Lil almost covered the Com with her hand as she spoke to Sard but decided to let Mr. High-and-Mighty hear. "The Great and Powerful Oz says answer or walk."

Sard almost let a smile slip as he flipped on his Comm. "Yeah."

"Nice of you to join us, Mr. Eckhart. My assistant will now lead you to a secure room in the establishment where we can teleconference like civilized people."

With that the Comm went silent.

Sard pondered a moment, then spoke to the young rep. "Here's how this works, you lead the way and I follow with a gun in your ribs, if anything happens you'll be the first one dead." Then he turned to Lil, "Don't know you, but let's assume you're here for the same reason I am. You watch my back. You armed?"

"Always," Lil replied, thinking of her "cyberclaws". "After you."

With that Sard pulled his Colt, making no effort whatsoever to be inconspicuous about it. Several of the customers -- and their bodyguards -- took notice, but in the time-honored tradition of Night City just watched warily, as it didn't directly involve them.

"That really isn't necessary," said the rep, his eyes on the gun.

"Tough."

With that the rep led the way toward a hallway: restrooms and a third door, where a smiling diner employee waited. The door opened to reveal a staircase leading down and closed behind them after they entered. Not a bad place for a secure room, Lil thought, easy to shield against outside eavesdropping. The rep led them to another door where he used a key card and started to stand aside for them to enter. Sard took him by the shoulder. "You first." They entered a small room with a table, several comfortable chairs, and a video screen on one wall.

"Please be seated," the rep said as he started to one side to activate a control panel. Sard looked around and took a position on one wall, breaking line-of-fire from the door, but where he could see the video screen. Lil considered joining him but opted for a chair as far from the door as possible.

Moments later a head and shoulders filled the video screen. Of course, thought Lil, a Corpo "giant" looking down on the little people. Sard just looked vaguely annoyed.

"Ms. Triton, Mr. Eckhart, I'm pleased that you could join me," boomed from speakers hidden in the room.

The rep quickly adjusted the volume.

There was no guarantee the person on the screen was the person they were speaking to, nor even real. Neither Sard nor Lil were happy with this.

"The job is relatively simple. You'll retrieve some data, samples, and an inside mole making it look like an involuntary 'recruitment'. The mole will assist your entry somewhat and provide the locations of the data and samples," the screen said. "You may depart this room now if you're not interested, but if you stay you're committed." With that the screen went blank.

"Fuckin Corpos," muttered Sard.

"Normally, I'd leave and let you discuss the matter amongst yourselves, but I suspect that's not an option," said the rep as he took a chair at the head of the table.

"Good guess."

Lil just shook her head, she really hated dealing with senior Corpos. And for someone obviously pretty high on the food chain to be recruiting for this job meant it was important to someone near the top. That implied things both good and bad. "You actually know anything about this job?" she asked the rep.

"Very little, I'm afraid," he replied.

Sard grunted.
 
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The silence in the room grew ever so slightly after Sard's grunt.

The Rep pulled at his collar, shifting his view to Lilayah sitting in one of the rooms random chairs. She appeared lost in a dream of thought, so he then glanced over to Sard leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. Sard's foot twitched like all he cared about was leaving this small room behind. When Sard caught the Rep's gaze, the Rep finally spoke.

"Well," he coughed into his hand. "My name is Andrew, I guess I am a bit late in the introductions." Andrew smiled at each in turn first at Lilayah and then at Sard.

"Right now you need to figure out if you can work together, that is the first step I think you need to take." At this Andrew steepled his fingers together looked over at Sard. "As you so clearly and delicately put it you prefer to work alone. That of course in not a option at this given venture and time," Andrew said leaning back not breaking eye contact.

Sard shifted forward with another grunt and narrowed his eyes. "I have a problem working with someone I can't trust so why don't you tell me a bit about the both of you, I might just share in return. Sound like a fair deal?" Sard finished he then shifted back against the wall running his hand over his beard.

Shaking her head from her thought, Lilayah chimed in. "I can agree to that. Best to know what we have on the table before we go any further along than this. Especially for big job like this sounds like it might turn out to be."
 
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Sard watched as Andrew started to speak, but his concentration was interrupted by a small _tink_ sound from the door. With reflexes born of hard-won experience and delicate surgery, Sard pulled his guns from their holsters and was two steps across the room before he yelled, “Down!”

With reflexes hardly slower than Sard’s Lilayah was out of her chair, razor claws extended, only to be smothered by Sard’s own battle-hardened body on the floor against the wall. Andrew was still drawing breath to speak when the door was shattered inward in a ball of flaming shrapnel and debris. His head disappeared in the fireball blast and his body was thrown back behind the desk. Two armoured figures followed the blast releasing a hail of gunfire indiscriminately towards the bulletproof desk.

Sard took immediate advantage of their distraction. From his position on the floor, he unleashed a barrage of fire at the two figures. The first, the one closest to the door, was thrown aside as his head erupted in a fountain of blood and brain caused by the force of three tightly grouped shots entered just under the figure’s chin.

The second had half a moment to react, so was dodging and the bullets struck the armoured helmet instead. The force still carried the black-suited figure to the ground. Adjusting his aim, Sard sent six armour piercing rounds into the assailant’s exposed groin, shredding the soft organs above. The attacker spasmed as their heart, lungs, and liver disappeared; blood soon running from under the face-mask.

Leaping up from the floor, Sard trained his guns on the door, ready for further attackers. Lilayah jumped up after him. “What the fuck!”

Sard moved to the side of the door, peering down the hall. There was no motion and this worried him. “Check that guy’s body,” he called over his shoulder.

“Who the fuck made you king shit?”

“Look, just check his body for anything useful or any information,” said Sard while smoothly changing his magazines for new ones.

Lilayah started to make a sharp retort, but she realized suddenly that the pair needed to work together or they could both wind up captured, dead, or worse. Quickly she moved to Andrew’s headless corpse. With streetwise efficiency, she patted the corpse down. She found a roll of eddies that she promptly pocketed, a pair of vibraknucles, a data chip, two credit card blanks, and a packet of gum. She unwrapped a stick of gum and started to chew. A spicy blast of ginger hit her throat and she was about to spit it out when she noticed something.

There, under the desk, was a data port. “Well, well, well. What are you doing here, my little friend?”

“What’s that?”

“Nothing. Just keep watching the door.” Lilayah rapidly removed a data cable and unwound it. One end into her slot and the other in the hidden port. She was about to push it in when a moment of doubt caused her to hesitate. She didn’t know what she’d find or what sort of nasty security might be ready to pounce once she jacked-in.

“We’ve got some movement,” Sard warned.

“Fuck it.” Lilayah thrust the cable into the port and was suddenly enveloped in the streaming rush of the switch. Lilayah found herself in a private intranet rather than the net proper. It was a construct of the very office she was currently huddling in physically.

The room was devoid of security. No I.C.E. to speak of. Either Lilayah was very lucky, or Andrew had been very stupid. She suspected the latter. Sitting at the desk where the late Andrew had sat Lilayah tried various things to find something of use. Andrew had tried to hide this construct, so there must have been a reason for it.

Touching the desk did nothing. No avatars appeared. No messages. She looked under the desk to see if Andrew had set up another hidden port for a recursive construct. Nothing there either. Andrew hadn’t been that imaginative. Next Lilayah tried the virtual drawers of the desk.

The top one was porn. Lilayah wasn’t surprised, but she did notice that Andrew had similar taste in porn has herself as she recognized several of the titles. The second was a little cube with a hole through it. She added that to her inventory. The last drawer had a slip of paper with the sixteen digit number 2357111317192327. She filed that in her inventory. She was about to check the rest of the room when she heard Sard’s concerned voice, “Time to move, sweetie. I don’t know who’s at the end of the hall here, but if we don’t make a move soon, we’ll be completely trapped.”

Lilayah made the switch back to the physical world and rewound her cable, slipping it into her pocket. She peered over the desk to find… nothing. She was alone. “Bastard. The bastard took off without me…”

Lilayah’s tirade was interrupted as Sard appeared in the door wiping a wicked looking knife clean of blood. Someone else’s blood by the look of it. Sard sheathed the weapon and finally noticed the look on Lilayah’s face. “Sorry. One of them was getting close, but he was alone so I thought it was best to deal with it before we make our way out of here.”

Lilayah couldn’t help but smile at the obvious concern in his voice. Sard clearly tried to project that he was a hard man, but she could see there was more than that going on. “No problem. You did what you had to do.”

Sard nodded but remained silent. He peered into the gloom beyond. “Okay. Here’s the plan. I’ll go first and deal with any of the heavy fire. You stay close behind me and try to keep low. If anything gets behind us do your best to keep them busy.”

“Right.” Lilayah rolled her eyes him, extended her claws and ran past Sard through the wreckage of the door. Sard tried to stop her, but Lilayah dodged his grasp.

“Shit.” Sard ran after her. He caught her as she reached the top of the stairs. “Slow down. We don’t know what we’re walking into.”

Lilayah snorted, irritation flashing across her face. “Well. They’re clearly well funded. Those were military grade weapons and armour. They’re well organized because they only sent two in first. The one you knifed must have been their back up but he didn’t rush in and must have radioed whoever’s in charge, so there’ll be more of them waiting up here.”

Sard was nonplussed. This little girl had some brains. And some balls. He could work with this girl. If they lived long enough, and right now there was some serious doubt about that. “You have the gist of it.”

“Don’t get mushy on me now, hard man.” She punched him on the arm.

Sard frowned at Lilayah. “Look. There’s a toilet across the hall. There’s a window above the stalls, but it’s barred. We’ll have to get through the bars before we can get out.

Lilayah smiled grimly and showed Sard her claws. A faint hum came from them. “Leave the bars to me.”

“Fine. I’ll go first this time and draw their fire. You get in the toilet and deal with the window,” said Sard, hoisting his guns.

“Jesus, man. You think you could have gotten something bigger?” quipped Lilayah.

Sard looked at his guns briefly, frowned and said, “Follow me.”

Sard stepped into the hall and fired three short bursts. He was rewarded with three distinct grunts and screams. His triumph was short lived as the hall erupted in return gunfire. Sard moved across the hall as Lilayah dove and scrambled across the hall into the toilet. As soon as she was in Sard followed, firing short covering bursts.

Lilayah was already at the window cutting through the bars and window frame. Sard helped by slowly sinking to the floor, groaning.

“What’s wrong?” asked Lilayah. A bar fell to the floor.

“Bullets hurt.”

“Do you need help?” A bar fell to the street outside.

“Just keep cutting those bars out.”

“Only two left.” Lilayah made short work of them and started through the resulting hole when she saw Sard holding his stomach, blood seeping through his fingers.

Lilayah started through the window again, but something stopped her. She tried to run, but for some reason, she couldn’t. “Shit.”

Lilayah jumped to the floor and grabbed Sard by the collar. “Get up, hard man!”

Sard groaned in response. “Pocket.”

“What’s that?”

“Pocket. Stimshot,” Sard said through clenched teeth.

Lilayah patted him down and found the stimshot. She stabbed the end into Sard’s thigh and pressed the trigger.

Sard winced as the drugs flooded his system, but his breathing became steady and his eyes opened. “Thanks.”

Two bullet holes appeared in the door next to Lilayah’s head. Sard, newly revived, spun and fired all the remaining bullets in his guns to discourage anyone from trying to come in. “Let’s go.”

Sard kept his now empty guns on the door and motioned to Lilayah, “You first.”

She didn’t need telling twice. She leapt to the window like a cat and was through the hole in a second. Sard took two steps toward the opening when a hail of gunfire started raining through the door.

Sard turned, jumped at the hole and scrambled through. He fell to the ground hitting his shoulder. Hard. The pain was sharp, but a noise sounded behind the big solo and he spun to aim his two useless guns at the target.

“Whoa,” said Lilayah holding her hands up. “Put the guns away hard man. It’s me.”

Sard grunted, half in recognition, half in pain. He tried to stand, but could only make it to his knees. Lilayah slid up to Sard’s side and put his arm around her shoulders. Between the two of them, they got Sard to his feet and the pair limped-ran deep into the heart of Night City. Hoping to get lost in the uncaring crowds.

***

In the ceiling corner of the toilet where the pair had just left a small eight-legged drone released itself and dropped to the floor. Spider-like it moved across the floor, up the wall, and followed through the window after the unlikely duo.
 
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He was the best of the best, the one everyone looked to! Big Slim Cybersmack, King of the Neurohack! As he walked down the street, punks made a hole for him and women swooned from his sheer manliness! He was the baddest of the bad, the most dangerous cat on the street, and the custom Doomcannon shotgun on his back was dreaded by all!

Outside of the drug haze, there was another reason the crowd parted for Big Slim: The smell. He was eighty-three years old and his body odor hinted at not having a bath in at least twice that long. Every so often, the sheer awfulness of the stench would overwhelm someone and they'd pass out. His rags added another, just as unpleasant smell: A mobile toilet, frequently used, that even now had the kind of staining only fire could clean. And if any of that were not enough, what looked like the barrel of a blunderbuss duct taped to a shotgun stock would have made anyone keep their distance.

About the only reason no one shot him is they were afraid to be splattered by the sheer amount of gross that made him up. Even in the grimiest, dirtiest portions of Night City there were still some standards of cleanliness that Big Slim managed to violate simply by existing at this point.

It was this cloud of stench and filth that Sard plunged into as he tried to lose himself in the crowd, having unwittingly left Lil behind a couple steps. He tried to hold his breath, but the sheer terribleness of the man's body left a taste in the air that only ended up trapped in Sard's mouth. Sard bent over, choking and sputtering as his lungs desperately tried to find some form of breathable air.

And then he heard a shout from a local rooftop. "Die, you filthy pile of human shit!"

The loud boom that followed as accompanied by the crack of a bullet bouncing off concrete as the shot just barely missed Sard's head. Lilayah cursed and grabbed him, pulling him back just as Big Slim whipped out his homemade death trap of a cannon.

"YEW'LL NAE TEK MAE WEE MEN!" Big Slim shouted as he aimed in a seemingly random direction and pulled the trigger.

The blunderbuss roared and the shot went wild, striking the neon sign of a porn shop sitting just on the corner. The barrel itself, detached from its stock by the gunpowder, flipped through the crowd and bounced of the head of a particularly tough-looking punk in the latest synth leathers.

The punk stopped, twitching, before pulling out his own gun. "That's it, you walking bag of rancid shit! I've had enough!"

As the punk's gun roared, Lilayah and Sard both stumbled into an alley, getting away from the crowd as even more gunshots began to erupt. They both shivered as they stumbled along, letting the firefight distract any pursuer until they were certain they were not being followed.

"Okay, what the fuck was that?" Lilayah asked, panting, as she looked back at the alley's entrance.

Sard shrugged. "Welcome to Night City."

Lilayah made a particularly rude gesture with her arm and looked at the alley's entrance again. "No pursuers."

"That we know of," Sard added. "Let's move."

Lilayah grabbed Sard and helped him limp towards the other end of the alley. Neither one noticed the spider drone sitting on the rooftop, watching them the entire time. It climbed down the building as it followed them.
 
More smoke blew in the bar. As if there wasn't enough already. One could barely even see the counter. It was thick and had a stingy, almost sulphuric scent that brought tears to the eyes, but Serg had air filtration installed in his nasal cavity and didn't notice. He couldn't smell it, but he remembered it and occasionally tasted it. The lights flashed frantically everywhere and the bass went boom-boom-boom so loudly, that it gave him a headache, but he was dwelling in thought so deeply that he didn't pay attention to it.

Serg sat in a corner lodge alone and sipped bourbon. The American excuse for whiskey. It tasted like piss and vinegar. It was better than the vodka-supplant they offered in that joint, that had never even heard of real vodka. This shit was more like paint thinner blended in water. But just like the bourbon, it was cheap, and he had drunk worse.

One of the local prostitutes with glowing eyes was wrapped in what looked like a collection of translucent garbage bags -- which was supposedly in fashion in the cheap whore circles -- revealing a twisted dim image of everything that it tried to cover, came over to offer her services. She told Serg she had a massaging vaginal cavitly with automatic moisture and lubrication features installed, and that she kept her moneymaker clean. But Serg just clumsily waved her off mumbling: "Piss off, skank", without even thinking. He didn't notice how she gave him the finger as she marched off, as if her feelings were hurt. Those bitches faced rejection all the time, and for a reason, too, as far as Serg was concerned. Their income was secured by the pimp who would throw them to another joint if they didn't produce, and who had bought them all those implants (because she most certainly hadn't bought them herself) to make them look more expensive than they were or ever could be. So, the gesture was probably just a leftover from times before she had an employer. Serg could have grabbed the finger and twisted it right off at the joint for the insolence before the whore would've even noticed, but there was no need for that now. He was feeling more inquisitive about his future prospects.

He constantly dug the card out of his pocket and examined it as if it would eventually result in a revelation. That card the smug, well-dressed bastard had given him. But there was nothing on it to give away anything. No names, no insignia or logos of any kind. It was just a black card with a set of bright red numbers that resembled an oldschool alarmclock. He put it back to his pocket knowing that soon he'd just dig it up again to see if he had missed something the ten previous times he had checked it.

What to do...?

He suspected a double-cross. He always did when dealing with corpos. To them he was just a disposable asset. At least up until he'd proven himself enough times to move up in ranks, but these jobs were always secretive and confidental. He was just one Russian guy from the street, a dime in a dozen, whose knowledge of what was going on could well be considered a liability afterwards. A shot to the back of the head. Being cut to pieces. Sunk in the sea in garbage bags similar to what the whore was wearing. On the other hand, this could mean big money -- really big -- and a steady job.

What to do...?

The smug suit, himself, certainly wasn't a big shot. He was clearly a lackey. A shill. An errandboy for someone who actually had power and influence, who would never ever lower themselves to talking to the street-level trash. Serg had dealt with those people before in the old country. They were lapdogs and doormats to their bosses and hated it in their guts. They would kill their bosses the minute they got a chance to take over. And every time they got an errand to play Simon in "Simon says", they took every pleasure in showing that they were now -- if only briefly -- in a place of power. They guy had been practically radiating pleasure and self-importance over his position in relation to Serg's. All the smirks and gestures... he was getting as much as he could out of the situation before returning to his normal position, licking the boots of whoever he was working for.

Back in the old country... Yes. The Russian northeast was far away from the big metropolis of the west, where the big orders came from. Everything was still smalltime when he was a kid. Before things started seriously growing. He remembered the whale carcass. It had lain there on the beach for years and nobody had touched it. He didn't know why, but he was glad. It was probably one of the last of its kind, and the sight of its bones was mesmerizing. It was still there when the first skyscrapers rose in the distance, and Serg started his solo career. Maybe it was there still. But perhaps not. Not anymore. The last time he saw it was when he fled over the pacific with Katya. The similiar corpo lackeys that he was now dealing with again, had their own shenanigans going on and he was not to be an active part of them, even after all he had done for them. Nor was Katya. But the search for the "American Dream" was not any easier, as he had noticed.

The sleazy cunt had mentioned they needed "some serious implants". Why? What am I getting myself into? he thought. What is the big picture here? There was something there he couldn't quite put his finger on, and the feeling was uneasy. This couldn't be an ordinary job. An ordinary hit never required as much as Serg had: a large set of Russian-made chrome that wasn't as finicky as the American counterparts, but was built to work and withstand even serious abuse. He ran his fingers over his replaced arm. The sensors worked. But...while he knew exactly where he was being touched, when, and by what force, he didn't feel it. The sensation was confusing and schizophrenic. He felt disgust. He had implants in his eyes, in his ears and nose, in his hands and feet...almost everywhere.

And it was appalling.

But he had to have them all, or he couldn't have done his job. And more was likely to come. Man had created technology to serve him, to help him and to ease the burden of life and survival and all that entailed. But in his greed and lust for comfort and productivity, man had also pushed it way too far, way too fast. The human body and mind were brittle and weak and diseaseridden. And as man had created a dependency for technology and innovation, the body and mind didn't have the time or the need to evolve and face the always changing world. It was no longer there to help, it was there because if it wasn't, man would die. He couldn't survive without it. Everything would collapse without it. Man was no longer the master of the tech, but a slave to it. Slave to his own creation in a world he himself had created. And as time moved on, so would human greed and the need for ever-growing amounts of it. New challenges would arise, and new tech would be created to solve them. It was cyclical. All the way up, until everything would be machinized and automated and there was no need for the faculties of man anymore. It was an unstoppable race towards the gradual and eventual doom of humanity.

Serg eyed the other patrons. Dancers, punksters, prostitutes, small time suits and upstart rockerboys, young addicts and old drunkards. All chromed up and without a worry in the world right now. Drugs, booze, money, fame and pussy. Those ruled the minds of people here. There was no deeper thought than what would happen within the passing hour.

Serg knew he was at the brink of a psychosis. The signs were apparent. A ripperdoc he knew had an experimental medicine that was supposed to slow down the the symptoms. Not prevent them, but ease its initial impact to inform the user he was about to be in trouble. Serg was the guinea pig. But he didn't know if the drug worked. He already knew he had lost something, as at times people around him would feel like little passing radios screaming white noise that he just wanted to shut down and demolish.

This wouldn't bear well with Katya, or Ivan for that matter, but he had to do everything he could to make a living for his wife and the boy. He still cared that much. Now was the opportunity to strike a big one. If all went well, he could strip himself of excess chrome and possibly live normally. But...so many questions. Could he trust he'd get paid in eddies, or was he about to be disposed of? What was the job even about, and who was the employer? Who was he to set himself against, and what was he suppose to do? Serg didn't particularly enjoy killing or torture. It was messy and took a lot of work to clean. But, man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Lately he had noticed he didn't quite care anymore. Disassembling a human body and its innards felt like disassembling the engine of a car. It was one of the warning signs, but he didn't...he couldn't...let it bother him. A job was a job. Violence and cruelty were most likely called for. He was determined to do everything as well as he could. It had kept him alive so far. It had produced him just enough money to bring bread to the table. He'd have to do so again, regardless of what kind of black abyss he could be diving into here.

Serg downed the bourbon and left the bar. When he got home, Katya and Ivan were soundly asleep already. It was good. He still needed to think. And drink. But he had made the decision. Tomorrow he'd call the sleazy fuck, say, "Yes," to him, listen very carefully at what he had to say (and what could be heard between the lines). Katya would oppose it. She hated corpo jobs for good reasons. Fixers were much more reliable, she thought, but Serg knew they could be just as bad, and they always paid less. But there was no choice anymore.

Serg poured himself a drink, opened the gun cabinet, and chose few of the better ones. As the night started to turn into morning, he was still cleaning them, delved in deep, troublesome thoughts of what was to come.
 
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Shit, shit shit. He would soon be running late, and the damn thing was nowhere to be found. Where the hell had he put it?

Case frantically searched through all the containers in his small, cramped and messy apartment. He was due to meet Melena in forty-five minutes, to hand her the shard he had been given to deliver. Problem was, he had no idea where he had put it after he had gotten home the previous evening. The reward the rep guy had given him had been almost too good, and it had really messed with his head. He strongly suspected it had been tampered with, but there really wasn’t anything he could do about it.

He just needed to find the shard and he’d be all right. Well, until the next delivery mission – which would never come if he didn’t complete this one. Case wasn’t stupid; he knew perfectly well what the consequences of failing in such a simple task would be.

After finishing yet another fruitless search, this time through a sock drawer, Case took out his inhaler and treated himself to a long whiff. It was the only thing that could calm his racing heart, and wipe away the gripping fear of failing in his task. The familiar feeling of euphoria filling his mind again, Case walked over to his jumbo-sized bed that was far too big for the tiny bedroom, and sat down for a little while. He needed to think. “All right, so,” he mumbled to himself, “I’ve searched through every possible place in all rooms but the kitchen. There aren’t many containers there, so I should have more than enough time to find the stupid shard. Then I’ll go meet that Melena woman, give her the shard, and be done with this little delivery mission.”

Case hadn’t bothered cleaning up the kitchen in quite a while, and a strong stench of mold and dirt greeted him as he entered the room. “Ugh, I really need to get this mess sorted…but not right now.” He started a systematic search through the few drawers and cupboards in the kitchen, even checking inside a cookie jar, just in case he had put the shard there. He had a tendency to place things in the strangest of places sometimes, which often caused him great frustration when he couldn’t remember where he’d put his inhaler, the car keys -- or a data shard he was supposed to deliver.

The cookie jar was empty except for some crumbs. Case tilted back his head, turned the jar upside-down and savored the delicious bits of cookies that fell into his open mouth. Only to cough them out a moment later; the taste of mold was overwhelming. “Disgusting shit…I need a drink to wash that down,” Case grumbled as he threw the jar across the room, where it shattered into thousands of tiny shards of glass, making the apartment even more of a mess than it already was, and crossed over to the fridge. He grabbed the first bottle he saw, poured its contents into a glass and went to add some ice cubes from the freezer. As he reached for the ice, he suddenly froze mid-motion.

There, on top of the ice cubes lay the missing data shard.

“Dammit! Of all the places I could’ve put it, I chose the freezer!” Case panicked. He knew from prior experience that electronics and ice did not mix; he had once ruined a brand new phone by dropping it in icy slush, when he had been on one of his most memorable holidays. “I’ve gotta check if this thing still works…but what if they’ll know I’ve accessed its content? Can never be sure with those corp types, they’re bastards one and all,” he muttered while squeezing the shard in his sweaty palms. “There’s no telling what they’ll do if they think I’ve messed with the shard – but on the other hand, if I hand over the thing without checking it, and it’s as dead as I fear it is, then I’ll probably end up dead as well. But what if I check it and find out it’s dead? What do I do then? I’ll be doubly screwed…”

Case paced around the kitchen, still squeezing the shard, weighing his options. There was no completely risk-free way to deal with the situation, so he’d have to choose what he considered the least dangerous course of action. He drained his glass as he thought, finally reaching a decision with fifteen minutes to spare. It would be just enough to make it to the arranged meeting point, provided he didn’t stop for anything along the way. “So, I’m gonna give the shard to Melena and hope for the best. This thing looks like it’s pretty damn high-quality stuff, so it’s possible it’s still in perfect working order. I’ll want to get the hell out of the meeting before Melena can test the shard, though…just in case.”

Case was no coward, but he quite simply liked his life and didn’t want to end up getting killed because of a stupid delivery job gone wrong. He slipped his lucky stone into his back pocket and left the apartment. He knew the stone was going to do exactly nothing to help him, and he would never admit to anyone he was carrying it around like a prized possession, but its barely noticeable weight inexplicably comforted and calmed him in a way only the inhaler could match.

He also had a plan.

He would be completely emotionless towards her, and ignore any flirty comments she might make. He would not let her get to him, not anymore. Meet up, hand over the chip, get back home. Simple as that.

With a temporary heart of stone Case strode determinedly along the quiet street towards the meeting place where Melena would be waiting.

***

Melena Rosetta was standing outside a popular restaurant full of customers, glancing at her watch every ten seconds or so. She was a busy woman, and the rockerboy wannabe she had agreed to meet was already two minutes late. Melena absolutely hated people who could not make it to scheduled appointments in time. A group of suspicious-looking thugs approached Melena, and she automatically slipped her hand inside her pocket where her trusty pistol was hidden. She had been attacked out of the blue more than once, and she wasn’t taking any risks. Not even in such a public area in the middle of the day. Her caution proved unnecessary this time, as none of the thugs so much as glanced at her. A man half-running behind them did, though, and raised a hand in greeting. Melena recognized him as the person she’d been waiting for, but didn’t let go of her weapon. She didn’t trust Tugger, and she knew he didn’t trust her either. Not anymore.

“You’re late,” Melena stated matter-of-factly, eyeing the man with a carefully calculated, mildly annoyed frown. “I thought you’d be eager to meet me, but I see I was wrong,” she continued, switching to a disappointed expression.

“Ran into some trouble not far from here,” replied Tugger in a neutral tone, meeting her brown eyes with his grey gaze that showed no emotion. Melena felt slightly hurt because of that, but didn’t want to overdo her act by letting it show.

“Well, do you have something for me?” she asked, and could not resist trying to bait him some more. “Something that would greatly please me?”

“I’ve brought you what I was told to deliver. I don’t know and I don’t care whether it’s gonna please you, but here it is.”

The blasted man still showed no reaction to her flirting. He simply handed her a data chip that was oddly cold to the touch, curiously enough seeming relieved to be rid of it. That was the only emotion he had showed.

And with that, he turned to leave.

“Hey!” exclaimed Melena, now letting her exasperation color her voice. “So you’re just gonna leave? Just like that?”

Tugger halted and slowly turned to face her again, wearing a politely puzzled expression. “Well, yes. You’ve got the chip. The only reason we met up was so I could deliver that thing, meaning there’s nothing more to say here.”

“Nothing more to say, perhaps. But what about something more to do?” said Melena in a highly suggestive tone, taking a few steps towards Tugger. “This delivery did indeed please me, and I wouldn’t mind celebrating a little. After all, we’ve not seen each other in a while…”

“There’s a restaurant right behind you, and I’m sure they serve alcohol. So, go and celebrate. I really need to get back home; got things to take care of.” With a slight emphasis on the last few words, Tugger made it clear he wasn’t going to fall for her charm.

Melena was not used to getting rejected in such a dismissive manner, and she stormed off when she realized her attempts were in vain.

Bastard didn’t deserve her, anyway.

Her exchange with Tugger had been so brief that she caught up to the thugs from earlier, and easily outpaced them in her determination to get back to the office as quickly as she could. The data shard, she had been promised, would contain plenty of juicy information that she would be able to use to write not only one, but two or even three real scoops. She could not wait to get started on those. That would also get her mind off her failure.

In her hurry to get away from Tugger, she failed to notice him leaving in the opposite direction, just as quickly as she did.
 
"You brought me to a damned sewer?" complained Sard.

"Quiet, hard man, we're almost there. I can't fix you up, and considering we just got into a shoot out with some big-wigs, a hospital seems like a bad idea. These guys will patch you up, and may be able to help me patch into this data better too. Getting to them isn't easy, but that's because they don't like being found. Let me do the talking, they don't like new people."

"We'll based on the smell, I don't like them much either."

Lil snorted, but it sounded more like a grunt under Sard's weight. "Just keep on that grumpy old stoic facade and you should be okay." She smiled at him.

Sard had to admit she had handled herself well back there. And even though he was running out of steam, she hadn't bailed yet. That kind of partner can go a long way. Too bad I might die in this hellhole before I can find out ... or even better, get paid.

He stumbled. The weight fell on Lil, who was having trouble continuing to carry the load. His weight forced her to prop herself up against the wall for support.

"Come on, hard man. I thought you were supposed to be tough."

Sard paused for a moment, and then quietly said, "Leave me."

"Excuse me?"

"Leave me." Sard looked at Lil as she stared back at him in disgust and sighed, with a cough. "Not leave, leave. Go get help and come back. I'll wait here."

"Are you crazy!?"

"It'll be faster than stopping every twenty meters. Get there and get back."

Sard could see Lil frozen. "Go!" he shouted.

She took one slow step away from Sard, then quickly turned and ran. Off down the tunnel until all Sard could see was the dim glow of the light she had been carrying. Then nothing. Sard didn't need the light. He alternated his optical scanner to detect heat and tech and scanned both directions. That smell. We'll at least if I die here, I won't have to put up with it anymore.

Time passed in the pungent smelling pitch black sewer. How much, it was hard to tell. Sard was starting to get tired ... which was very bad. He had to remain focused. Then in a moment, adrenaline started to kick back in. He noticed movement ... and not from the direction he had wanted. It was small, and registered no heat signature ... but the tech had picked up the motion for a second. Now there was nothing.

He stared into the pervading darkness. He dared not even blink. It could have just been a glitch, but Sard had a feeling this was some evil black magic voodoo tech that was too advanced for his scanner to pick up. Corporate bastards. The quiet was overwhelming. All Sard could hear was his own breathing and heartbeat. The sewer didn't even do him the curiosity of a drip or creak to break the silence.

Then. Footsteps. From the other direction. Several people. Lil. Sard dared not turn his head. The light approached behind him. Then he heard it just under the sound of the running footsteps. Something metallic. Something small. Moving away from him in the opposite direction of the steps. Surveillance. Dammit.

"He should be right up here!" he heard Lil say. Then she called out. "Sard!"

"I'm here!" he was barely able to call out. He was weaker than he had realized. He still didn't look away from the darkness in the opposite direction. He heard no more sounds. But he knew it was there.

"There he is!" called Lil's voice.

"He looks bad. Alright, you two get the stretcher."

Sard finally turned, looked at them all and lifted his finger to his mouth as if to say "Shhhh" without actually making a sound. The others froze. He mouthed to them, "We're being followed."

A man next to Lil nodded. However, all he said was, "I said you two get the stretcher. We need to move him now."

The others, a man and a woman Sard thought, exchanged a glance, but approached Sard and laid down a stretcher.

"He's lost a lot of blood." said the man next to Sard. The woman who kept her eyes down the corridor, was packing an assault rifle.

"All the more reason to hurry," the man next to Lil responded.

They laid Sard down. Shit, he thought. Then he passed out.
 
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Jonathan took a sip from the cup, not consciously remembering if it was supposed to be coffee or tea. It was hard to tell with the synth stuff. He studied the sales records for the second time. It was always the mid-range markets that generated the most revenue and the most trouble. There was a sum of about two million that he couldn't account for. All from the last quarter. That was sloppy.

They were choosy when they hired, and that meant they promoted the best. The best knew how to manipulate the data and take their cut on the side. Corporate bylaws didn't permit it; they encouraged it. It was the only way to advance. A body couldn't expect to rub against real money any other way. Those that couldn't provide something for themselves without drawing attention were learning only half the job. Idealists were simply working their ass off for a severance package and a recommendation. Business took place above and below the table. An employee that couldn't manage both became a liability after a certain point.

Someone here had crossed the line, though. He glanced dryly at the sum again. More like they backed up for a running start and leapt over the line. An amount like that wasn't overzealous; it was stupid. Whoever it was had tried to launder the money within IEC's macro system. Imbecile. Some good it does to secretly light a bonfire then run down the street leaving a trail of fuel. All he had to do was follow it. It was a just matter of time. And, that's what had him annoyed. He would rather not spend extra time chasing some frantic squirrel back to its hoard of nuts.

He was grateful for the interruption when the com-link popped up. M. Valkyrie, and a too-luscious picture of his wife. What was she up to, using his personal line during work hours? It wasn't a call, just a message: CaliSun Network news. What's this, John? He had no idea, but he could feel the tremor in her subtext. He linked into the channel without delay. It took him seconds to find the article she must be referring to:

Corporate Curveballs - IEC and Zetatech Square Off Over Contested Stocks

Jonathan's mind took a moment to refocus as a husky voice began reporting the story.

...how the two megacorporations will approach such unusual circumstances. The Gundensen legacy is one that meanders throughout Night City's history as well as its coffers. Zetatech invested heavy capital in many startup companies preceding the First War. Several of those companies were summarily acquired and reacquired by the other corporations over the years, but Zetatech has never traded their original stock, allegedly giving them enough shares by proxy to claim voting rights in several megacorps today. And, based on the history, they have both hands feeling around in IEC's pockets...

"Bullshit!" was his first reaction, but he instantly realized it didn't matter whether it was true or not. He started thinking. Hard. The last thing they needed was open contention with Zetatech. Not now -- of all times. God damn it! It was more than a bit convenient that this should surface at this moment. That meant it wasn't coincidence. It was far more sensible that someone within IEC had found something in the stock records and was leaking the info to Zetatech...or maybe directly to the press? Whatever the details, the only likely reason for the mole to focus on Zetatech, specifically, is if they knew about... Fuck!

...neither IEC nor Zetatech has yet to make a public statement. Stay with us for the latest as this unprecedented situation continues to develop. Melena Rosetta reporting, CaliSun Net.

He walked to the door; it sighed open. "Racquel, send Andrew to me, please. Urgently."

The girl at the desk quickly checked her links. "He's off the grid, Mr. Dowe."

Still? That was as good as a conviction, as far as Johnathan was concerned. "Then, go find him. Quietly. Start at his residence. Whatever he's doing, I need to speak with him. In person. Now." He was walking away before he had finished speaking. The door slid closed behind him.

* * *

Melena pressed the buzzer again. She could hear him rummaging around in there. The hallway smelled. Like, worse than usual. Finally, he opened up and leaned against the doorjamb, naked down to the waist, a couple of monstrous bruises on either side of his neck almost blending in with his tattoos. She put her hands behind her back and twisted gently from side to side, pouting. "I don't like it when you run from me."

Tugger just stood there, trying to play it tough. "I don't like it when corpo fuckers treat me like I'm your fucking errand boy."

"Sorry," she said, as submissively as she could, and glanced away embarrassedly. She absently fiddled and tugged at the ties of her shirt. The deep collar fell open a bit more. She turned back and looked at him squarely, a mischievous smile inching across her face. "What did you do with the money?"

"None of your business for starters. But, I bought us some top-shelf spirits and vapors with what was left over." He smiled that way he did, sometimes. A bit sideways.

Jesus, she found that hot. She jumped at him. He tasted like sour alcohol covered up with candied mint, but at least he had tried.

A few hours later, she lay on the bed next to him, sipping from a glorious, jewel-green bottle of something that tasted like herbs and licorice and hit like 120 proof. He was cradling a guitar, no amp, plucking strings that barely made a sound and mouthing whatever he was singing in his head. He'd occasionally swear and start over. She grinned and slithered her body under the guitar and up to his face to kiss. He responded...patiently. Seemed like she had reached the end of her visit. Men. Good for a couple rounds, and then you might as well be a piece of furniture. She wasn't planning to stay all night anyway. "I know...you want to focus. Do you have something for me before I go?" She slid off of him and pulled on her shirt.

"Take a bottle or some of the shit if you want. Can't fucking believe I'm saying this, but I've had enough for a bit."

"No, I mean another shard, sexy, errand boy." The last story had been a hit. Her ratings had gone up by 80%. She couldn't wait for the next scoop. The terms had been crystal: don't reference the source, and release each report within the same week. It had already been five days. She'd be busy tomorrow.

"Naw." He was fiddling with the guitar again.

That caught her. "What?"

"No, babe."

"Wait, Case," the use of his real name got his attention, "what do you mean 'no'? Did you go to the meeting point?"

"Uh...yeah," he said, the attitude dripping from his words. "Twice. I went the day I was supposed to and the day after, too. No one was there."

"You went twice?" Her stomach flipped. "Did they try to contact you? Did they change the date? Did they say when they would contact you again? Think! You gotta be sure you didn't miss anything!" Another thought shot through her mind like a bullet. She grabbed at the guitar. "Please, tell me you didn't try to contact them!"

"What the fuck, girl!? Chill out! Seriously!"

She was pulling on her clothes as quickly as she could. "Did you see the report? Do you even know what's going on?"

"You know that's not my scene, babe."

"How much money do you have left?"

"Shit, really, bitch? Like I'm gonna argue -- "

"How much!?" Something in the way she shouted stopped him cold. It was probably the crippling fear she was only barely holding at bay.

His voice and demeanor became hesitant. "A few hundred I think. What does that -- "

"Take this!" She net-transferred another thousand into his account. "Take that, and go someplace else."

"Whoa, babe! I mean, thanks and all, but why are you -- "

"OH, FOR FUCK'S SAKE, CASE! Do you think people like that forget to show!? Something happened! Everyone knows that I published that report, and someone knows you trafficked the info! If they can't find me, they're gonna come for you! Don't be here!" She kissed him hard and ran out the door, letting it slam behind her.
 
They'd been followed? By who? Or was it what? More importantly, why?

Lilayah mulled it over for the 1000th time. They hadn't even really gotten the job and still didn't know what it even was beyond a data retrieval. They had no clue who they were suppose to get it from! This made no sense. Unless...someone on the inside of IEC wanted the job to fail. That's who Mr "Great and Powerful Oz" worked for, and the recently-departed Andrew worked for him. OK, think Lil. IEC is working against itself, and you're caught in the middle ... Shit. The left hand assumes you're working for the right hand and know what it was up to, therefore you're a liability ... Shit.

"I hate corpos," Lil murmured to herself.

"What?" asked the guy who'd watched their backs on the way in. He was sitting near her reading a magazine and apparently hadn't quite heard what she'd muttered.

"Nothing," she replied, "just talking to myself. By the way, what's your name?"

"Name's Brad, but everyone calls me Teabag," he replied.

"Teabag?" asked Lil.

"Yeah, well, ya see...first time I got into the shit, I got a little overenthusiastic with my first kill, and, ahhh...sorta teabagged him." Brad looked embarrassed.

Lil chuckled in spite of herself. "You actually did that in real-life?"

"What can I say, I was 16," he replied, shrugging and turning even redder.

***

Koffi was getting a little worried. She'd gotten a message in the dead drop to be ready for extraction...last week. She was sure she'd have heard if someone had gotten caught infiltrating the facility, but: nada.

"Hey Sammi!" she called.

"Yeah?" Sammi looked up from the monitor he was calibrating.

"You hear more than I do around here. Heard anything about any trouble around here lately?" Koffi asked.

"Nope. And if you came up for air and talked to real people once in a while, you'd know there's no news, too. Why ya ask?" he wondered.

"I, uh, overheard something on the way in this morning," she quickly replied.

***

This is khernya, bullshit, thought Serg. He'd accepted the job days ago. Been told he'd be contacted with details of who and where. Since then, silence.

"Чего они ожидают - чтобы я сам разобрался, кого должен убить?" Serg pounded a fist on the table in frustration.

"English!" yelled Katya. "And, don't say things like that in front of Ivan!"

"Sorry Kat, I'm just worried about this job. How am I suppose to do the job if they don't tell me who it is?"

"Maybe this is a good thing," she replied softly. "You've been doing to much, to fast. It's hurting you."

"But sitting here doing nothing doesn't pay the rent." He forced himself not to snarl.

"We talked about this, I can always go back to dancing."

"No! I will not have my wife whoring herself!" He pounded the table again. It cracked.

***

Sard sat up. "Hey Teabag, you got another weapon I can clean or something? Just sitting here all day doing nothing is driving me nuts."

"Nope, you've cleaned every weapon in the compound in the last few days. Twice."

Just then, Lil entered the ersatz hospital room. "You about ready to get back to work big guy?"
 
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Davis sucked on the cigarette, hard, savouring the bitter nicotine taste. Exhaling he sighed with pleasure.

"Do you have to do that?"

"Yeah, Cho, I do," Davis said.

"What happened to the vap-stick I got you?"

"Vap-sticks are for assholes. If you're going to smoke, then smoke goddammit." Davis took a drag for emphasis.

Cho shook his head in disbelief. "How much do those things cost now? Fifty? Sixty eddies?"

"Sixty-three and worth every one. There, pull in there."

Cho pulled in front of Tom's Diner. "Ugh. People actually eat here?"

"Hrmp. Not if they know what's good for them. Come on." Davis got out of the car before it stopped moving.

The scene outside the diner was typical for an evening in the NC. The uniformed plod cordoned off the area from gawkers. It wasn't needed. The citizens of Night City rarely had any interest in what the police were doing and less in what may have happened to anyone else. Davis took another drag and waited for Cho to finish parking and join him.

Scanning the area Davis saw at least a dozen petty crimes taking place at that moment. Cho joined him, pulling his collar up against the drizzle. "You see anything interesting?", Cho asked.

Davis shook his head. "Nothing. Let's go in."

Davis started in and Cho stopped him with a hand on his chest. Pointing at the cigarette he said, "You can't smoke indoors."

A wry smile crept across Davis' face. "Call a cop," he said pushing past Cho's objection.

The interior of Tom's Diner was less appetizing than the exterior; if such a thing was possible. The floor was awash in spent casings and blood spatter. Davis trod through the lot while Cho tried to preserve evidence and avoid contaminating it. Davis rolled his eyes at Cho's naivety. "Jesus, Cho. There's enough evidence here to bury a horse. Don't be so timid."

Cho looked down at his feet, back to Davis and shrugged. "What do you make of it? Looks like it could be gang related."

Davis looked at the scene. "Maybe, maybe. Let's go down to the office."

Davis and Cho tramped down to the lower office. At the bottom of the stairs Davis took a deep sniff of the air. "Do you smell that?"

"Smell what? I can't smell anything over the stink of your cigarette."

"The door was blown, but the smell is like burned caramel. None of your cheap organic explosives a gang might use. That his highly refined chemical explosives. Military grade for sure."

Cho took a sniff but choked on Davis' smoke. Coughing he said, "So... you think... military?"

"Hmmm. Or military grade corp shit."

"That fits," Cho agreed.

Entering the office a pair of crime scene techs were scanning the room for prints and other fine evidence. "Have you cleared the body yet?"

"Yeah go ahead," one said.

Davis examined the headless remains. Inspecting the wound he made no comment but motioned for Cho to take a look. Cho bent to the wound. "I don't see anything."

"No," said Davis in feigned surprise. "I see a man that seems to be missing a head."

Standing, Cho gave Davis a dirty look. "Of course I see that. I thought you saw something in the wound."

Davis tapped one of the techs' shoulder. "Hey, where's this guy's head?"

"Don't know. It wasn't here when we arrived."

"Did you look for it?"

"What? Do you think it rolled under the shelf?" Come on Davis, we know our jobs. The head wasn't here. Whoever killed him took it with them."

Davis rounded on Cho. "See, even a knuckle-dragging tech can see the head is missing."

"Fuck you, Davis," said the tech.

Davis waved at them as they headed back up. At the top of the stairs, Davis noticed the toilet and headed in. Taking the room in a glance Davis flicked his cigarette at the floor. "Tell me, Cho, what happened here do you think?"

Cho examined the remains of the door, the window with the cut bars, and the bloodstained wall. Standing Cho said, "Something went down here."

"Stunning revelation Cho. Where'd you get your detective's badge? A box of condoms?"

Cho's face darkened in anger. "A perp, no two, came from the office and into the toilet under heavy fire. One was hit and bled against the wall. The other cut the bars, with a saw or maybe implants. They went through the window and into the city."

Davis nodded in satisfaction. "Good to see you've been paying attention. So they went through the window. Where did they go?"

"I... I don't know but they should show up on CCTV."

Davis beamed. "First prize, Cho. So where to now."

"Back to the station to check the CCTV."

"Right again Cho. You see, you're going to make a good detective yet. Police work isn't cool or sexy. It's boring and repetitive. But if you are persistent enough for long enough, you can see justice done."

"I never knew you were a romantic Davis," said Cho.

"Of course I am," said Davis lighting another cigarette. "Only romantics tilt at windmills."

Cho gave Davis a confused look.

"Never mind Cho."
 
The drone sat, patiently, waiting in the dark as it scanned for them; it was not aware Sard and Lil had managed to lose it, and was still where they had left it. Mostly, it was waiting for the duo to do something other than sit in their current location. It remained on the ceiling, unmoving. Humans rarely looked up, so its creators had programmed it to idle up high or on the ceiling when in stake-out mode.

As soon as the door opened, it took three steps back, further into the shadows. Its camera lens was unaffected by darkness, but humans with insufficient augments still needed light to see. It watched as someone completely unlike its targets emerged. For a moment, the drone sat before receiving new orders: Prey lost; begin search.

The drone dropped down from the ceiling and scuttled further into the sewer, hunting Target Primus and Target Secundus.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Case was running, and his breath was coming out hard and fast. He had grabbed his things, fled, and barely got out before a seemingly-innocent cleaning drone exploded. He might be able to scrape together a single ashtray of what used to be his bedroom. He silently thanked his luck Melena had not returned.

The rest of his trip was worse. Rather than a nice, frantic car ride, he was now dodging shots from an aerial drone in dirty alleyways. His car had been hit by a missile as soon as he neared it. The rest of his trip had been on a neighbor's stolen motorcycle, racing through the streets without paying any attention to where he was going, as the drone kept following him. A lucky U-turn under a bridge had lost it for a few minutes, but unluckily, the bike had ran out of fuel immediately after. And then, he had spotted the drone coming back.

Case stumbled, groaning; this was it. The drone was going to kill him. Suddenly, an arm reached out of one doorway as he passed by, yanking him inside. At the same time, a loud crack of a gun firing left his ears ringing, almost drowning out the smaller explosion of the drone's armaments detonating. The light from the explosion blinded him, leaving spots in his eyesight.

"Told ya I could hit it!" came a female voice through a crackling speaker.

"Yeah, yeah, I owe you a beer," grumbled a rough-sounding male voice. "And, shit. Looks like we got a fucking corp. Shoulda' fucking known they wouldn't send that shit for anything less."

"Listen, I -" Case began.

"Shut the fuck up. I don't want to hear it," the man interrupted. "This is our territory, and I'm not letting anyone violate it. Not the Halloweeners, not the Jack Flashes, not the cops, and not you fucks." There was the sound of a gun cocking. "Now give me one fucking reason I shouldn't vent your piece-of-shit skull."
 
“Go find him. I need to speak with him. Now.”

Racquel was not particularly happy about the tone in which these instructions had been given. However, since they were directly from her usually thoroughly friendly boss, she wasn’t exactly upset about them either. She knew his attitude was most likely at least a partial act, an attempt to guarantee his employees’ loyalty, but that didn’t stop her being grateful for having such a pleasant boss. Neither did it stop her following his instructions as meticulously and literally as she could. Sometimes even too literally, like that time when he had asked her to move a meeting with a business associate to the next day. She had done what he had requested – and only what he had requested. Thus, the business associate in question had not been notified of the new appointment time, and he had shown up one day too early, when Mr. Dowe had been out of office on urgent personal business. Needless to say, Mr. Dowe had not been happy with Racquel after he had received an extremely angry message from the business associate. Especially as said associate had never contacted IEC again.

Racquel shut down her computer, picked up her keys and phone, and headed towards the office door. She had seen through a window that it was raining outside, so she grabbed one of the umbrellas from a stand just outside the door. The address she would need to visit was nearby – Andrew was lucky to live so close to the office – so it shouldn’t take long to get there. She would probably make it back in time for lunch break, which might allow her the wonderful sight of Mr. Dowe enjoying his lunch with his employees. He, unlike his wife, had always shown he cared about the people who worked in the office, and often sat down with them during lunch if he wasn’t busy with important matters. Based on what others had told her about the conversations they had had with Mr. Dowe, Racquel was looking forward to the day when he would choose to sit down next to her. He was said to be interested in how others were doing, and ask questions regarding that. Nothing too personal, though. While Racquel wasn’t a self-centered person, she knew she would love to chat about herself in a casual way. Probably ask a few questions in return as well, if given the chance.

Racquel knew that some of her colleagues thought her admiration of Mr. Dowe was due to attraction – but that was completely false. She was in a perfectly happy relationship; not that she had ever told anyone about it. It was none of their business, and she preferred to keep work and private life separate as much as she could.

The weather turned out to be not only rainy, but windy as well. Racquel had to keep up a constant struggle to prevent her umbrella turning inside out, which made her all the more glad that she wouldn’t have to walk far to get to Andrew’s home address.

No one else seemed to be about, probably due to the weather. Racquel could not help feeling there was something more sinister to it, though. Although she did her best to hide it, she was at times rather superstitious and “sensed” trouble where there was none.

Refusing to acknowledge the feeling of something not being right – she was following important instructions, so there was no time for silliness – Racquel briskly made her way to a rather luxurious-looking building Andrew was listed as living in.

The front door was unlocked, which was convenient. Racquel was able to get out of the rain and wind, and stop gripping her umbrella with all the strength she could muster. She looked around the hallway she found herself in, seeing several doors on either side. There was also what could only be an elevator, and what looked like a door leading to a staircase.

Number plates on the doors closest to Racquel had numbers starting with 1, which she figured might indicate the floor. Andrew’s apartment number was 49, which would then mean he lived on the fourth floor. Racquel would need to choose between the elevator and the stairs to get there. She chose the elevator, because she would still have a lot of work to do at the office. It wouldn’t do to tire herself with stairs. Besides, she did not know what awaited her on the fourth floor; if Andrew was in trouble, which did not seem likely at all but was a possibility nonetheless, every second might matter. Or that was what she told herself to justify her choice. She had never been particularly interested in what, to her, was pointless physical exertion. Exertion of the mental kind, on the other hand, was one of her hobbies.

The fourth floor looked identical to the street level, except here the walls were forest green rather than earthy brown. The doors were the same, dull grey, with small number plates attached to them.

“41, 42, 43...” Racquel muttered to herself as she walked along the corridor searching for apartment number 49. “Of course he’s gotta live at the very end of the corridor.”

Door 49 looked identical to every other door on the floor; there were no name tags on any of them. Apparently visitors were expected to know the exact apartment they wished to visit.

Racquel knocked on Andrew’s door, but there was no answer. Not even after more than ten seconds. She tried the doorbell, instead, and got the same result again. She could hear the doorbell ringing inside the apartment, so it definitely worked, but Andrew either was not home or did not want to answer the door. Racquel refused to allow the thought of Andrew being unable to answer get hold.

She leaned against the door to ponder her next move, but leapt back almost immediately. The door was not locked, and her leaning against it with all her weight caused it to open. If it hadn’t been for her quick reflexes, she would have fallen on her back. That did not bode well.

Very cautiously Racquel pushed the door fully open, and entered the apartment. Nothing suspicious or unusual stuck out to her as she tiptoed around the rooms. There was no sign of Andrew, but also no sign of anything being wrong. Well, except for the door. No one left their front door unlocked around here. No one.

Racquel did not even pause to consider whether what she was doing was wrong; she had clear instructions to find Andrew and bring him to Mr. Dowe, and she was going to do just that. If that required snooping through Andrew’s apartment and things, then that was hardly her fault.

The apartment wasn’t particularly large, but it was neat and well-kept. Almost too neat... Racquel got the impression that the place had been abandoned for at least a few days. There was nothing too recent anywhere, and when she looked closely she spotted dust on most horizontal surfaces. That did not seem like something Andrew would let happen, if his behavior at work was anything to go by. He could be overly thorough with things like keeping his desk clean and uncluttered.

In the bedroom Racquel found a bed that was covered in dust. Andrew truly must not have been at home if he hadn’t even slept there.

“Now what do I do? Andrew’s not here, and I’ve no idea where he might be. I can’t just return to Mr. Dowe empty-handed, either. Not when he specifically said the matter was important, and urgent as well.”

After considering her options for a few minutes, Racquel decided to search through the apartment one more time. Perhaps she had missed something, something that would at least give her a clue as to where to look next.

Her persistence paid off a short while later, when she discovered a hidden compartment in a desk drawer. She had to pull out the drawer to be able to pry open the compartment, but it was worth the trouble. In the compartment lay multiple data chips. Racquel grabbed them all, closed the compartment, and put the drawer back where it belonged. She cursed herself for not taking anything capable of reading chips with her. She would have to return to the office for that, as she had not seen anything suitable in the apartment.

If she was careful, she might be able to make it without being spotted by Mr. Dowe. It wouldn’t do to let him see she had failed to find Andrew, even if she was still in the process of tracking him down...
 
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Eight days. It had been eight days since Sard had been dragged in here. I appreciate that they probably saved my life, but if I have to stay cooped up in here another week, I'm gonna miss my rent. We need to get this thing moving. But that sound...

It had been there, he knew it. The others had just about the best scan array an underground netrunner den could manage without corporate funding. And with all that tech, they had found exactly nothing. Either what he heard wasn't following anymore, or it was fancier crap than he cared to think about. But if that was the case, Sard wasn't sure why the place hadn't been raided yet by IEC or whomever else was chasing him down.

Regardless, it was clear Lil's friends knew what they were doing. Sard had been lucky that no bones were hit, though Teabag had told him his intestines were a few feet shorter than they had been before. Teabag wasn't just a thug but clearly had some Medtech training or something in his past. Sard was getting stronger, even if he would still get his ass kicked in the tamest of bars right now. His best guess was former military that got dishonorably discharged or something like that, but he tried not to meddle in other peoples business too much...especially in a confined space like this.

In total, there were three people living here it seemed, plus Sard and Lil as visitors. Teabag and Joanna were apparently security for the old man, and a couple too. She was all business all the time, and Teabag was just the opposite. So it seemed. But even though they were different, it was very apparent that they were close. Sard liked hearing their banter, which was mostly Teabag bantering and Jo making faces at him.

The other one, Jay, seemed to be the old-timer runner of the crew and was apparently a friend of Lil's. It was clear he was the boss, and that Lil and Sard were allowed to stay here by his leave. He looked the part for sure. The man must have been sixty and had had the old-man kinda beard that belied a man who did have to worry much about getting in a fistfight. Likewise a incentive not to piss off a thug in a bar was the plugs. Jay had hardware installed and wiring that weaved in and out of his arms, neck and head. His was cautious and to the point in a way showed how he had collected a few follows.

Jay and Lil hunched together over the data that they had been able to retrieve. Sard could never understand half of what runners were saying when they talked shop. It was it's own language; Sard could barely comprehend. What he could understand was that, after six days of work, they had been able to break the encryption on the data Lil had gotten off the the suit who had been blasted. They had spent the last two days going over the details of the info.

It was a B&E job. Get in, get the data, get out without being being noticed. But the problem was the target. Zetatech was the up and coming Wetware provider for California. Getting caught would be pulling down the wrath of one of the mighty of Night City. They had to be very careful, which is a point Jay was trying to drive home constantly.

"They WILL kill you Lil, if you're caught."

"For the last time, I know the risks, Jay. Listen, there's no other way out of this mess. By now IEC is probably looking to burn everyone who had anything to do with our meeting, figuring they need to start fresh. The only way to maybe leverage our way into not getting fried is to do the job. And if it doesn't feel right with IEC, then the data will be valuable to all sorts of various corps. Somebody will want it. And we can use the cash to get the hell out of dodge. Either way, we've got to do the job, because if we don't eventually IEC will find us and want answers. Which we don't have. Which means we're dead. Can we just focus on getting it done...?"

As Lil trailed off, Sard spoke up, "So, run through it for me."

"Zetatech corpo HQ is not quite the fortress some of the more established Multinationals are housed in, but it's no cakewalk. We'll need to go in underground, most likely."

"Great, more sewers," deadpanned Sard.

"Get over it, old man. According to the data from underground there are six different access points into the facility, but all of them are secured and under surveillance. That's where the mole comes in."

"Whom we haven't even spoken to yet," Jay mentioned. "It's too dangerous. Once you contact this 'Koffi,' how do you know they won't immediately sell you out? Hm?" He paused, "Even aside from all the other stuff, that's the part I don't like. We don't know if we can trust them based on how your initial meeting went with IEC and..."

"If it seems fishy, we don't go ahead." Lil interrupted. "But if Koffi checks out, then she gets us in. Once were in, she'll get us to the ventilation system from the underground. Once inside, we have to crawl to the office of the man himself: Karon Davis. Inside, I'll access his computer directly. We'll have to copy the data directly from there, and then try to unencrypt it."

"Why not just take the whole computer? Less exposure for us as far as time in room," Sard offered.

"It could be bugged," responded Jay, "Davis isn't known to be overly trusting or personable. Plus, there's also the issue of carrying it. Not to mention, as soon as we turn it on, they will likely fry the data on the device remotely. We need the data on something we control to keep the files intact while we work on them."

"I don't like it," Sard said flatly.

"Nor do I," agreed Jay.

"Either of you have a better plan?" asked Lil.

"No."

"No."

"Well, alright then. Next step, find out if we can trust this 'Koffi' or not."
 
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About 8 days had passed after Serg had talked to a stranger in a caffe. He was training his skill a lot but he had one problem - he didn't have any ammo for his guns. And now, he was sitting in his small apartment.

"I need some ammo," he said to the void.

Luckily, he had some old friends who had moved to Night City from the Soviet Union. They could help him with that, as well.

Serg tapped on his temple and his com-link appeared before his eyes. There were only two phone numbers in it, one without a name. The other had a Russian name: Не вздумай им звонить. He sighed and started a call to the first one.

Long rings were his only answer for a full minute. Finally someone picked up from there.

"Yes? Who is this?" a hoarse voice said. Serg flinched because of this voice.

"It's me. Serg," he answered dryly.

"Серега? Это правда ты? Мужик, я тебя не слышал, блять, сто лет!" screamed the voice, right in Serg's ears head.

"Antony," Serg was a little bit annoyed, "speak English. We are not at home." His voice was still dry and without any joy.

"Serg, Serg, Serg," repeated Antony. "Now, I'm sure it is you. So, I think you called for more that just a talk. Am I right?" His voice was full of happiness.

"You're right. I know about your business in this city. So, I need your services as a customer."

"Of course, sir! You need a weapon, an ammo or all together,? Want to see our catalog?" he said laughing.

"Antony," sighed Serg, "You know where I live, and you know what I like. Just send me standart box of ammo, and I will send you eddies back."

"Ok," said Antony after a small pause, "I don't need your money. It will be a present for you." He said hanging up the phonecall. He ended the call.

And, Serg was left alone again with the dark.

After a couple of hours, someone knocked at the door. Serg opened it. But there was no one, only a box with a label: От земляка земляку.

As he opened the box, the smell of powder punched at his nose. There was all kinds of bullets in it and now he is ready
 
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